When Lisa Campbell first arrived in Greece in November 2015 to help care for the flood of refugees she planned on staying for just a few weeks. She ended up running a refugee camp – until it was suddenly closed last month. What made an American Mormon grandmother of six leave behind her family and her job to deal with the chaos of Greece’s refugee crisis?
Like most people in the US, I hadn’t been aware of the scale of the refugee disaster until the pictures of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach started being shown on US news in 2015.
But it wasn’t until I actually got here and saw for myself the piles of life jackets and the boats stacked on the beach that the magnitude of it really hit me.
I had taken a leave of absence from my job and planned to be in Greece for 45 days. My assumption was that I would find people who were housed, fed, and had basic services available.
That first morning on the island of Lesbos, I went out on my balcony and I could see nine boats coming across from Turkey already. You hear people say that the boats are overloaded, but to see 50 people get off of a boat that would be full with 10 is overwhelming. I can’t tell you how many times people would get off the boat and literally kiss the ground. That grabs you.
It was hard to wrap my head around what I was seeing. I was horrified at the stories that I heard. I was also happy to be able to help, happy to see that these children, once you got them into some dry clothes, were still looking for the first toy they could find.
There’s probably not an emotion that I didn’t experience, standing there day after day on the shore, watching the boats come in. And that’s how my journey in Greece started.
When I got to the refugee camp in Oinofyta, on the mainland north of Athens, there was nothing there – just tents and army catering. I had no refugee experience, but I’m a do-er. After Hurricane Katrina, I helped start a non-profit called Do Your Part. We had worked in disaster zones before, but this was our first refugee crisis. I just started doing. I organised, planned, and built.
After I had been here for about a month, a donor in the US said he would sponsor me to be here for as long as I needed. So, I called my husband and said, “I want to quit my job and stay in Greece.”
Soon after, in June last year, I took over as manager of the Oinofyta camp. I was a little fearful to begin with, but I knew in my heart it was the right thing to do. These guys needed someone to care, to fight, and to advocate for them.
I ended up running the camp for 18 months, until the Greek government shut it down a month ago.
From my perspective, this work is like being a mother. I’ve raised four children and had several foster children and the job that I do here, even though it involves things like construction and installing electrical equipment, in reality, it’s pretty much being a mom.
I’m not a saint. I’ve learned that love is a choice. For me, some of the more poignant moments have involved people that I don’t necessarily really like. When they were informed that the camp was closing, these people came to me and said things like: “You’ve been like a mother to me, I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.” And I realised that I had met my goal – which was to take care of them and show them that they were loved. That they’re cared about, not forgotten.
When the camp was shutting down, we were told that we’d have time to get our stuff out. We had about a quarter of a million Euros worth of property in the camp. Then, the Greek government, in less than 24 hours, gave me three hours to get it all out.
When that happened, I posted on Facebook: “I’m done. They win, and everybody else loses.” That was probably one of my worst nights. How do you fight bureaucracy like that – bureaucracy that makes absolutely no sense?
The next day I woke up to a phone full of messages saying, “What do you need me to do? I will come help.” And I thought, “OK, I can do this. We, together, can do this.”
When we were allowed to get our things, we were also informed that there was a possibility the camp would be reopening. They have not said when, and every time I ask, I get told: “When they run out of spaces in other camps.” It’s as plainly vague as you can be.
I know that all of the Greek islands are overcrowded. I have a camp that within three or four days could serve 500 people. Why aren’t the refugees here?
The residents of our camp felt like “refugee” had become a dirty word. But they’re refugees because they want the same things in life that you and I want. We had engineers, lawyers, teachers, musicians, artists, police officers – people from all walks of life. They were just like you and me.
I’ve been able to introduce many of the Greek people here to the refugees. That’s the only way that we’re ever going to get over the fear of refugees. I’ve forged some tremendous relationships that allow me to help people in ways that the large organisations just can’t, because they don’t have the trust.
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The Greek people have opened their hearts in so many ways, but their government and the large NGOs are clueless. We had a situation last winter where we had no drinking water because the pipes were frozen. It was on a Sunday. I notified the organisation who were supposed to be in charge, and the soonest, the absolute soonest that they could get us any water in the camp was Tuesday.
I said: “You’re telling me I have to make people wait 48 hours before they can have drinking water? What are we supposed to do?”
I called a local restaurateur I knew and said we needed water. In two hours, I had a truck come in. I’ve met incredible people here who help me fight for what’s right – not just the refugees, but the Greeks too.
Most of us are hardwired to want to provide for ourselves. When your life is spent getting handouts from everyone all day, you lose your dignity. I had this wild idea that it would be great to start a business, sewing bags from leftover tent material. I tell you, those workers were the happiest people in camp because they had a purpose other than sitting there waiting for their asylum interview.
They still have that purpose today. We currently employ 18 residents. Last month, I signed the lease on a new building for Oinofyta Wares and they will be moving to the nearby community of Dilesi. We have companies and purchasers in America who want to buy these in bulk now. We are one meeting away from it being registered as a Greek business, and these guys will own it.
My father was a naval officer and my husband was in the US Coast Guard, so every two years, our family moved. Part of my life has been learning to say goodbye, which has been one of the harder things here at the camp: the constant rotation of volunteers and residents.
The hardest goodbye was to four-year-old Mustafa. He was here with his mother, sister and little brother, waiting to reunite with his father and older brother in Sweden. I knew them for about 16 months, and I grew to absolutely love that little boy. He would sit in my office and say we were both the camp managers. He was a huge personality in a little teeny body.
I was so happy for them when they got their family reunification, and so sad because I knew that the likelihood of me being able to ever see them again was pretty slim.
My own kids are all asking the same question now: “Mom, when are you coming home?”
I don’t know. My volunteer visa expires 22 December, so maybe that’s when I come home – because the Greek government won’t let me stay any more.
I hope that my legacy here is that the people that I have touched, the refugees or the Greek people, will always remember that I cared about them. That they were special and important. That they were worthy of that care.
My husband asks me: “What are you going to do when you go home? You’ve been the mother to more than 2,000 people that have come through this camp.”
I’m going to stand as a witness. I’m going to talk about what has happened here. I’m going to try to make people understand that we are all human beings.
Photos courtesy of Lisa Campbell.